Can the work of Samuel Beckett Beckett help us rethink the concept of ‘disability’?

Posted on: 30 July 2018

Highlights from Trinity’s world-class Beckett collection on display in the Long Room

Can the work of Samuel Beckett help us rethink the concepts of ‘difference’ and ‘disability’? A public discussion on how Samuel Beckett thought and wrote about disability and an exhibition featuring highlights of Trinity College Dublin’s world-renowned Beckett collection will form part of Trinity’s annual Samuel Beckett Summer School taking place this week (Monday 30th July to Friday, August 3rd).

Now in its eighth year, the Samuel Beckett Summer School, hosted by the School of English and School of Creative Arts, invites the world’s leading Beckett scholars to discuss their latest research in both formal and informal settings. Each year 30-50 students come from across the world participate in Trinity’s Beckett Summer School to hear about the latest research in Beckett, one of Trinity College Dublin’s most famous alumni.

This year the public programme of the summer school will include a panel discussion on “Beckett and Disability”, a topic which is emerging as an exciting new trend within Beckett studies. Samuel Beckett wrote and reflected constantly about the nature and meaning of embodiment and as a result he continues to be an important touchstone in the growing field of disability studies, according to the event organisers Dr Nicholas Johnson and Dr Sam Slote. The event will take place on Wednesday, August 1st, 2018 in Trinity Long Room Hub.


Other public elements of the programme include a guided tour of Beckett county; a performance of Morton Feldman’s Vertical Thoughts 2 by David Adams followed by a discussion with Sarah Sew, artistic Director of Beckett Chamber Music Series; and a “Behind the Scenes” conversation with the artist-scholar Sarah Jane Scaife, director of Company SJ, about her acclaimed multi-year project Beckett in the City. Further details below.

The event will discuss a wide range of disability-related issues, including the representation of disability and ability in Beckett’s literature, as well as the theatre contexts in which Beckett’s work has been engaged by disabled performers. The recent work of Theatre Company Touretteshero, especially their production of Not I in London, will be discussed as will the implications of accessibility and neurodiversity in education, policy, and philosophical landscapes. Contributors to the event will be Siobhán Purcell, Irish Research Council Scholar, NUI Galway; Jonathan Heron, IATL Deputy Director and Principal Teaching Fellow, University of Warwick; Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in English, Trinity; and Declan Treanor, Director Trinity Disability Service.

Dr Nicholas Johnson Assistant Professor of Drama and co-director of the Samuel Beckett Summer said: “Samuel Beckett is one of the enduring writers of the 20th century. The protagonists of his works endure and abide impairment. As a result, much exciting work in Beckett studies today involves disability studies — looking at Beckett’s texts to see how they address the human condition through questions of disability.”

To coincide with the summer school, an exhibition featuring highlights of the world-class Beckett collection held by the Library of Trinity College has gone on display in the Library’s Iconic Long Room. Included in the exhibition will be one of the four literary notebooks, gifted from the ever-generous author in 1969, which forms the foundation of the collection.

Jane Maxwell, Trinity Library’s Principal Curator said: “Since receiving that first gift of a notebook from Beckett himself, the Library had dedicated itself to building up one of the best-known and richest resources for the study of Beckett and his work. Apart from having the biggest single collection of Beckett correspondence anywhere in the world, the Library collection includes a wide range of material which runs from a piece of undergraduate ‘homework’,  to photographs, signed first editions, works in translation and drafts of major literary works. Beckett exhibitions are always popular with the hundreds of thousands of our visitors for whom Beckett and Trinity College are almost synonymous. But it is particularly satisfying to curate an exhibition specifically for a Summer School full of enthusiastic Beckett fans.”

Also contained in the exhibition, which will run until Wednesday, August 22, will be a photograph of Beckett directing rehearsals of Waiting for Godot at the Riverside Studios Theatre in London in the 1980s. This production, by the San Quentin Drama Workshop, subsequently travelled to Dublin making it the only Beckett production which appeared in Ireland which had been directed by the author.

The exhibition, which is open to the public as part of the Book of Kells exhibition, will include the single most important piece in the Beckett collection – a notebook from the 1960s which shows the impact on the Beckett’s creative process of his bilingualism. He started All strange away in English and this gave rise to Imagination dead imagine, which was begun in French, and which then developed into an independent work, Dr Maxwell explained.

Associated with this is an item from the extensive correspondence with Barbara Bray, theatre director and intimate friend of Beckett’s. On the back of one letter Beckett has doodled the precise locations to be adopted by the characters from the play he was writing at the same time.

The exhibition will also feature the most recent acquisition by the Library, a first edition of Echo’s Bones and other precipitates published in 1935. One of only 25 copies signed by the author, this copy uniquely contains the inscription ‘for Cooldrinagh’ – referring to house where Beckett was born. This is doubly poignant given how important the memory of his home always was to Beckett and given the fact that his mother was so appalled by his early writing that she threw him out of the house, Dr Maxwell added.